Militias and the “New Normal”

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign brought the menace of the “Patriot” movement from the margins to the center of national politics, and there is no reason to think the militiarization of our politics will now fade into the background.

Will we all have to learn the Rural Organizing Project’s tips for those facing off with the Patriot movement in Oregon? Will we need to take security more seriously when holding meetings and somehow find the courage to be visible even when our political opponents carry guns?

As readers of Democratic Left know all too well, Trump’s bullying of Mexican Americans, other immigrants of color, and Muslims translated immediately into his supporters’ harassing people from those communities on the streets and in schools. On a New York City bus ride, a middle-aged white couple shouted at a young Bangladeshi American woman to take off her hijab before the white woman tried to pull it off her head, saying it wasn’t allowed anymore. Fellow bus riders yelled at her to stop but the Muslim woman was left in tears.

Along with the prospect of the permanent mainstreaming into our lives of such street harassment and armed, white, fatigue-wearing right-wingers, I fear the astounding appeal of the bullying, male supremacist, racist authoritarianism of Trump. We saw it in the thrill of his famous call for “Second Amendment people” to take care of Hillary Clinton, presumably by shooting her; in the joy of the crowds when he said he would jail her were he to be elected president; in his having his security guards muscle out a black supporter from a North Carolina rally because he mistook the man’s enthusiasm for a challenge. It was there when he rejected the prospect of being judged by a U.S.-born Mexican American in court. We heard it in his ultimate con, that only he could bring jobs back to the United States.

With Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon as his “Karl Rove” figure, no one can pretend that the white supremacists who presented themselves as “white nationalists” won’t maintain their place at the center of news feeds, as they did riding the Trump phenomenon.

During the 2007 election campaign, right-wing talk radio, Fox News and websites gave a platform to “birthers” who claimed Barack Obama was born in Kenya and was a secret Muslim aiming to take over the United States. Instead of subsiding after the election, the conspiracism grew.

This time around, the conspiracism built on the years when the mainstream Republican Party and its media allies insinuated that blacks engage in “voter fraud.” The constant investigations by congressional committees fed the McCarthyite feel that there is something sinister to investigate.

I agree with my former colleague Chip Berlet that we are witnessing right-wing populism—Trump and many of his followers scorn “elites,” including Wall Street and the Beltway regulars of the GOP, while scapegoating immigrants, Muslims, and the less powerful. The Trump supporter chanting “Jew-S-A” to the corralled press corps at an Arizona rally reflected corrosive anti-Semitic attacks on the news media, suggesting they can’t be trusted because they are controlled by a Jewish cabal. Among populists left and right there is a widespread loathing of smug insiders of both major parties who craft trade deals that destroy living-wage jobs and ignore the growing fear of those in the middle that they too will tumble into the economic abyss. “The Great Risk Shift” described by political scientist Jacob Hacker, with corporations and government cutting safety nets and shifting the risks of the economy on to individuals, has only gotten worse with the gig economy.

Fascism is a type of right-wing populism that seeks a one-party state and a subversion of democracy itself. Whether Trump tipped into a fascist style during the last weeks of the campaign is up for debate. I’d say his vow to throw “crooked Hillary” in jail and his disdain for the courts and legislature—the other parts of government besides the executive—are at least fascist in style. This echoes Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt’s notion of “decisionism,” that the person who is able to use extra-legal means to assert a new normal is the sovereign power.

There can be no debate that Trump’s attacks on our weak democracy feed into the implied threat of an armed political culture. His appeal as the strong man who can fix everything builds on a weakened party system hollowed out by big money in politics. “The people” have been ignored in Washington.

In this, at least, he is not wrong. Lawrence Bartels tracked the disparity between the corporate politics that congressional representatives voted to support and what opinion polls revealed their constituents actually wanted. This was true for both Democrats and Republicans. Bernie Sanders’s amazing run revealed that more was possible within the party system than many leftists ever imagined. It will be interesting to see whether the Berniecrats committed to running for local office can turn “Our Revolution” into something new within the Democratic Party’s shell.

Trumpism now leads the GOP alliance of the fossil fuel industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Christian right, and white “middle” Americans. Conservative soul-searching during the campaign ended with the election, as did the need for racist dog whistles as they submitted to Bannon, normalizing a white supremacist in the White House.

What will we do? Along with political battles, not least around climate change, we are creating solidarity circles, signing up to “accompany our neighbor” who fears being harassed, and figuring out ways to widen the circles of compassion. This is the first order of work. We must challenge the distrust Trumpism generates among us. As my friend Robina Niaz, an activist and social worker, told me, “There are more people reaching out to us, friends and allies, than are trying to harm us, and we have to remember that.”

Conspiracism—and the racism it builds on—seems to me the greatest long-term threat that we need to tackle from the far right, as much as any authoritarianism coming from Trump’s government. During the election, fear of those tendencies led some to support “popular front”-style politics allying leftists and liberals in multi-ethnic organizing. Moving forward, we must support news media we can trust and enlarge their reach into local communities. We need to build local voices and local visibility. And we need to do it without the party bashing (or navel gazing) that is a turnoff to the growing number of people who don’t identify with parties or even politics as we know it.

We’ve been working on that for years, but the fragmentation of social media platforms now seems more of a setback than an opportunity. Face to face, community by community, we need to nurture a living, growing consensus among the new power bases emerging—in #BlackLivesMatter, Hispanic advocacy, and labor both inside unions and beyond—and build media that go with it. We need to keep digging new trenches of consciousness from the ground up. We have no choice.

Abby Scher is a sociologist and journalist who writes frequently about the U.S. right and economic justice.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.


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